Author Archives: Jack

A visit with the Old Man

We awoke to a quiet but sunny morning. I guess there were no takers on the morning ferry. At least none showed up at the car park. I couldn’t even see any crazies coming from the direction of the ferry after slogging their way through the Glen. They present as tiny dots about halfway up the mountain slowly moving horizontally, right to our left, climbing over stone pasture walls on a slope of 30 degrees or more. Tough going but they join the official trail about half way up the mountain, right before the path kicks up almost vertically. It must be really disappointing. No takers today. What do they know that we do not?

I imagine all you Escapees knew we were going to do it but I wasn’t so sure. I have to confess that any nervousness I may have felt has been replaced with anticipation at what we might discover. This drive to see what I might see has gotten me into trouble more than once but then again I’m still here and willing even if my knee is not.

Hiking poles, boots, tracker, puffy jackets, sandwiches, small amount of water, too heavy for more and we’re off. It’s a bit of a hike just to get to the trailhead.

We immediately start climbing and then the switchbacks begin. We’ve already gained a lot of altitude and the vastness of the Rackwick Valley stretches off into the distance.

This hut is where the Glen trail and the car park trail join forming the steepest section of the trail.

Finally we’ve reached the plateau at the top of the mountain, where it seems like it can’t decide wether it wants to go further up or down so it does a little of both while skirting a dizzying cliff side drop off.

A standing stone and a cairn seem to mark something significant, maybe half way. One of those pebbles is mine.

Soon a glimpse of what I assume is the Old Man, although Marce isn’t so sure.

Turns out it’s a lot further than it looks.

Huge stone blocks form an especially torturous kind of quasi staircase.

Still a way to go and the wind is picking up.

Finally we meet the Old Man of Hoy.

Yes that’s Yours Truly, your intrepid reporter verifying that it’s definitely windy out on the point.

After lunch we noticed the Orkney ferry doing a spot of sightseeing.

After 45 minutes or so of profound appreciation we sadly wished the Old Man well and began the trudge home.

The trail continued to deliver amazing panoramas.

Tail dragging the gravy we clambered back into Escape Velocity after setting an age-adjusted blistering pace. Overall it took just under four hours, and I’d never change a thing. What would it mean if we didn’t even try? You have to try.

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On the road to find the old man

So, it’s been a while. Kirkwall keeps serving up surprising things to do but inevitably even a tiny palm tree decorated island paradise in the Malacca Strait can get old. There is just no avoiding it. So we are inexorably drawn to it. It’s bigger than us. Passage booked, we are off to Hoy! In addition Marce has found a fabulous free parkup near the jumping off point for the hike to the Old Man. So it’s there if we dare.

We prudently stayed at the Kirkwall town campground to ease camper maintenance, less said the better, and made it to the ferry ahead of schedule.

We’re old hands at ferry protocol but due to the short duration of the trip we just stayed in EV.

Marce planned a few little side adventures on the way to the parkup. First stop was the Longhope Lifeboat Museum featuring the beautifully restored Thomas McCunn in her original rapid-deployment setting. (See link for a short video of the thrilling rapid launch.)

Lifeboats stationed on Hoy respond to vessels in distress in the North Sea and Pentland Firth, some of the most dangerous waters in the world. We were regaled with tales of heroism and tragedy, reminding us of some of the shipwreck memorials we visited in Shetland.

The honored list of lost heros is as impressive as it is sad. When one of the lifeboats doesn’t make it back home, it represents a large percentage of this tiny community’s population including several members of the same family since many fathers and sons serve together.

As sailors we’re grateful for every brave mariner who responds to an SOS. Every time these folks get a call, someone is having the worst day of their lives in some of the worst conditions on earth.

Next up and further down the road was the Hackness Martello Tower, built in 1813 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. The style of tower derives its name from the original design at Mortella Point in Corsica where in 1794 the French mounted two small cannon on top of a projectile-deflecting round masonry tower some 4 meters thick, which enabled the French to fend off two British warships carrying the combined firepower of 106 guns.

This so impressed the Brits, understanding good value for money, that they built over 100 similar towers in the South East coast of England when Napoleon began gathering his forces to invade Britain. They apparently misremembered the name, and the British towers are called Martello instead of the original Mortella.

So you have a nearly bomb-proof structure housing ammunition, complete gun crew, a cistern for water, and the British innovation of an oval shaped tower, with elevated gun platform for a 24 pounder, replaced fifty years later by a 68 pounder.

Two sister towers protected the massive anchorage at Scapa Flow from 19th century American privateers and through both world wars, never firing a shot in anger.

Finally we drove 45 minutes the entire length of Hoy to Rackwick at the end of the road.

On the other side of the mountains the clouds parted and we descended into the vast beautiful valley under a rare blue sky.

Rackwick is the settlement at the end of the earth and the closest you can get to the Old Man of Hoy by car. A good place to stop.

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The Gloup

So I said, ”Dear, what the hell is The Gloup?”

“It’s where we’re going to park-up tonight,” she cheerfully offered.

I thought it must be a theme park from Gwyneth Paltrow. Turns out that The Gloup has the Full Monty of attractions, a free overnight park-up, decent view, a reasonable hike to a massive geo which is a collapsed sea cave or blowhole, and Marce’s favorite, an honesty box right in the parking lot. I’m thinking of putting a warning sign on Escape Velocity that says “This van makes sudden stops for Honesty Boxes.”

On the way over to the sunny trailhead we stopped at an innocent-looking plaque that told a grossly different story. It seems that indeed the geo is no more than a mile away but the scenic rocky coastline goes on for miles. Out came the hiking boots and poles. We’ve seen at least a half dozen interesting geos, most of which are wonderful. However, to avoid another Rule #2 infraction (don’t get jaded) I quickly smiled and said, ”I’ll do it.”

Making our way along an undulating narrow path lined with sunny tall golden grass that snapped as you extricated your foot after every step, we approached the payoff. You see, that’s the thing about geos. There’s little to see at ground level.

The fencing is to keep those pesky sheep from falling in.

You really can’t see much until you creep cautiously up to the edge of the geo and peer down into the cavernous, vertigo-inducing…hole. Still, it’s a fine hole and the best of them have a water feature of some sort. It’s really kind of magical.

It turns out that Marce, when confronted with dizzying heights, is afraid she’ll take that final step out into the ether. Yours Truly, on the other hand, instantly thinks of the first few pages of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in which he imagines, in a flight of fancy, the passengers blown out of flight AI 420 over London somersaulting through the stratosphere, some even recognizing their overhead luggage tumbling nearby. Same result. I say, ”To each their own.”

And so it was.

You see, the problem is that Yours Truly has a curiosity compulsion that I knew would inexorably suck us into, if that plaque is to be believed, a long and arduous tour of this rough and rocky Scottish coastline.

A natural bridge used to connect these cliffs.

Turns out the best part of this day was the incredible Scottish coastal landscape. We trudged along with my throbbing knee becoming more insistent until a “Dangerous Conditions” sign blocked our path. The remnants of a wooden staircase still clung to the rock wall leading down to a private beach but that went with the same earthquake. Recognizing my opportunity I said, “Well, it must be time to turn back.”

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They’re Baaack!

I like to think of ourselves as observant intuitive people, open to new experiences. So when we found out that not one but two remarkable well preserved antiquities were hiding in Kirkwall, if I’m being honest, I was shocked. Turns out they were not hiding and not at all far from the St. Magnus Cathedral, which we see almost every day. In fact they are across the street from St. Magnus Cathedral.

I had seen a small sliver of the Bishop’s Tower many times but thought nothing much of it. The tower looked closed, which it was, but we were still flaunting Rule#2 in a clear violation. Don’t know why, just assumed there wasn’t much there there.

We’d gotten to calling friendly Kirkwall home and after walking up to the launderette to drop off some badly needed washing, we ambled over to the side street beside St. Magnus to the tower. Much cooler closer. We found that the tower was part of William the Old of the Norwegian Catholic Church’s Palace, built in the early 1100’s.

We skated on in, Scot-free as it were, due to our Historic Scotland pass thingie.

It’s basically two rectangles of two stories each, with a large hall on the second floor, divided by a second story entryway and the Bishop’s living quarters in the tower facing St. Magnus, which is ironic because it seems that Old William hated Magnus the man, considering that he was murdered in a dispute over money. In short the Bishop considered Magnus a charismatic fraud and poo-pooed the cult that sprung up among his followers who claimed he performed miraculous cures from the grave.

St. Magnus tower can be seen over the front wall

However, in desperation the bishop himself sought out Magnus’s grave in Birsay due to a spot of blindness, which miraculously disappeared after I would imagine some sincere prayer. The Bishop decided to bring some of the relics to Kirkwall to be interred in the cathedral, lending official recognition to St. Magnus’ Sainthood. You just can’t have too many magical miracle relics. I can’t vouch for any of this. You be the judge, but all I know is there is a well-used pilgrimage called the St. Magnus trail that traces the route they used to bring the relics from Birsay to Kirkwall.

They’re Baaack!

Our old friends Black Earl Robert Stewart and his fiesty son Patrick are at again, honing their skills at fraud, tyrannical oppression, carnal overindulgence, debauchery, and fathering some 19 children, some of whom were actually legitimate, and finally, magnificent architecture.

The Earl’s Palace is another kettle of fish. It was finished in 1607, built by forced labor and displaying all of his stylistic flourishes but done on an even more grand scale.

In a touch of irony, Patrick stole the property next to the Bishop’s residence by having the poor owner beheaded for theft. That being said, this is truly a magnificent ruin.

Openings for weapons, as usual, were everywhere

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Don’t call it a cop-out

Feeling like farmers from Idaho we rolled into a concrete jungle called Stromness where we found ourselves on a concrete multi-lane road. We’d been starting and then stopping and waiting on Scotland’s beloved single-lane roads for so long that we were a little apprehensive about big city life and the demands of suicide traffic circles, not to mention tiny parking lots. I’ll admit that mistakes were made but after a few wrong turns we eventually found Escape Velocity in a large concrete car park featuring grossly optimistic white lines but close to a Co-op that’s a kind of largish convenience store.

We’d heard that there might be a cafe or two, maybe even an open restaurant in town. It was time for a nosey where we found the town a little nervous about a Covid resurgence that left most of it still closed down.

It’s funny but I’ve always felt that sidewalks were more accommodating at the side of the road.

Turns out the charming little town was captivating with orderly, just so, tidy stone buildings with quirky chamfered corners. After all, I think it’s on the whiskey trail and taking the sharp corners off a building for safety’s sake makes sound Scottish sense. I’ve sampled the product and couldn’t agree more.

All well and good but nobody expected to find a beautiful well appointed African Art emporium where we found a perfect table-clearing, gadget stash for EV to guard against the unlikely event that Yours Truly finds himself at an imprudent speed part way through a poorly designed corner, scattering everything on the table throughout the van.

Treasures in hand we headed out of town toward another of Marce’s special park-ups on the Stromness harbor channel, adjacent to a cemetery. We slowly crept down an impossibly narrow lane and after a modest amount of polite discussion, we were semi level and switched off.

We were left with nothing but ocean waves lazily rolling up the shore, the cry of gulls, and the always persistent wind. To the right a sign post pointed to Black Craig, whatever that is, and just across the channel was our first sight of the hulking, malevolent, mysterious presence of Hoy.

With binoculars we could only see evidence of one road on Hoy matching our map which showed maybe two roads total, and one wonders why you would take the ferry over to only drive on two roads. I mean do you have to walk everywhere on Hoy? Not my kind of island.

We’d heard of a seriously long hike over rough terrain to see the Old Man of Hoy but we had just seen two amazing sea stacks and well, you know, Rule #2 with a suspicion of a Rule #3 infraction. Hype is hype. Will we or won’t we?

Marce came up with an alternative solution. Two ferries service Hoy and another one plies the waters from Orkney to mainland Scotland and if the weather gods smile, when she sails close aboard Hoy you can see the monster from sea. What a relief. We’ll get to see the Old Man without putting paid to what’s left of my right knee. No, not a cop-out, but I still took a celebratory walk around the cemetery.

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Bus stop

We climbed a sunny but circuitous single lane up to a cliff side concrete pad that sported one inch thick bolts hacked off just above the surface. Our park ups are usually isolated lonely outposts where it would be rare to see another campervan let alone a tourist bus. But here there are several fine examples parked alongside what turned out to be a WWII gun emplacement, sans weaponry. The tourists were a small price to pay for ocean views as magnificent as this and we get to watch our own sunset.

People started arriving early, hopping around on one foot while trying to change into hiking boots around back at the trunk or as they would say, the boot.

Many headed off up a gentle rise towards the Broch of Borwick which was rumored to be more ruin than broch.

We’d just seen a shiny pants broch or two and in a clear violation of Rule #2 (don’t get jaded) we gave it a pass. However what was not to be missed was a coastal romp with a Rule #3 grand payoff of twin sea stacks. The boots and hiking poles came out and in a flash, we Escapees were off. Soon we had those iPhones rearranging pixels in a most pleasing manor. Can’t lose, this is a handsome place.

By this point there weren’t many tourists left and the path was not at all clear but finally the tops of the amazing sea stacks hove into view.

These sea stacks defy logic as they precariously cling, off balance, like a high wire act milking applause from an appreciative audience while the sea continuously pounds, gnawing at their base.

Throughly engrossed, trying to capture this titanic improbable balancing act, we hadn’t noticed Scotland’s favorite trick: a sudden unexpected turn of weather. It began to rain. Not a mischievous mist but a fairly serious pelting. What would a proper Scotsman do at this turn of events? Probably turn his face up to the heavens and I suspect, ask for more. I’m German. Head down, muttering, I booked for Escape Velocity with a few soggy miles of wet grass to go.

An hour later, after drying off, the sun came out just to mock us for running home, but as if to apologize, we got another golden sunset.

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The Black Arts of Birsay

We heard about a magnificent renaissance palace called the Earl’s Palace in Birsay. Being out this way we thought it might be worth a nosey and, located in a small village, it ought to be easy to find. I found a parking spot near by, we started to wander around the village and before long, down a tiny alley, there it was dwarfing the rest of the village.

Turns out our old friend Black Lord Robert Stewart built this palace in four years starting in 1569. Short reminder: this Earl Robert was the illegitimate son of King James V, much unloved and in fact reviled. He built this monument to his royal pretensions and the tyrannical oppression of his people.

The blackness of Lord Robert’s reputation faded into a paler shade of grey beside his son Patrick Stewart who soon officially took over as Earl around 1600. Patrick, if you remember, built that splendid castle in Scalloway and dear Escapees a magnificent palace in Kirkwall, on our agenda soon.

When you enjoy a reputation as bad as the Stewarts, whether you’re building a castle or a palace, you’d build in as many arrow ports and defensive devices as they did.

Spiral staircase leading up to the Earls bedroom

These were unsettled times, it seems, and bad karma eventually caught up with Patrick and his son Robert after an unpopular revolt against King James VI went pear-shaped. By 1614 the Palace was seized and so were their heads.

Ironic that Marce found an honesty box just across the alley from Black Lord Robert’s Palace. This one featured pickles and condiments in addition to the usual sweets and Marce bought several jars for the pantry.

Gun ports pointed right at her.

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Trail of the Gods

Feet up on the co-pilots seat, the campervan equivalent of a La-Z-Boy, sans TV but with a stunning azure ocean view under the ancient gaze of the Broch of Gurness, we sat slowly sipping a handmade cup of our new favorite LavAzza coffee, rated a 5 on the UK intensity scale. They rate nearly everything on a strength scale, even cheese. Well, around here it’s going to be cheddar. Nearly all cheese around here is going to be cheddar, and the best would be a mature cheddar, crumbly and as my dear wife calls it, rat cheese.

As it turns out, I would suggest a good idea might be to rate the payoff at the end of some of these brutally long slogs we’ve done. You’ll remember we agreed to call it Rule #3. No long hikes without a great payoff. Even better, a short hike with a great payoff. An example of a #2 on the intensity scale might be a nice, let’s say, waterfall, 15 minutes from a nice park-up. Not an Aussie 15 minutes which would be a more realistic half hour but close enough that you can hear the water splashing, and not some rock strewn Muckle Roe endless torture of a hike with a nice charming payoff. If I’m being honest, how does one apologize for leading people over that terrain just for “nice?”

So where was I? Oh yes, feet up with a mug of hot LavAzza contemplating an overall strategy for touring Orkney. After careful consideration we go for the tried and true, coddiwompling, and the west coast looks promising. First we find a righteous parkup because a great parkup is well over half the pleasure of this game.

After the usual stop and go single lane shuffle we pulled into a paved hilltop lot crowded with lots of families in all kinds of vehicles. It was far from ideal. Now is when we apply Escape Velocity’s most winning strategy. We wait until they all go away, which usually works rather well. This is far from our usual choice of parkup which is normally remote with no lines painted on asphalt. But this is still a unique site.

At first glance you notice a nasty rip tide current boiling between where we are, high above the channel, and several hundred meters across is Birsay, a nondescript grass covered lump of a currently uninhabited island with some old stone ruins, circa 1,000AD with a lighthouse on top, circa 1925. It is high tide and the current is racing through. On closer inspection, shimmering below the surface you can barely make out a slightly paler zig zag pattern two meters wide stretching all the way to Birsay.

Obviously this would go better at low tide. Now we wait in ernest.

As the tide drops lower, a few thrill seekers tentatively test the waters and wisely give up. This is Scotland, there are no railings, you are expected to assess the situation for yourself.

By late afternoon the seas had parted, exposing the walkway and people had begun to go forth, including Marce who decided to tour the whole island while I reviewed Rule #3.

I eventually succumbed to peer pressure and crossed over the walkway and found it kind of creepy but fun. Greeted by many orderly piles of stones delineating the approximate size and shape of the extensive buildings that were once here, we wandered around until it was obvious that the incoming tide would soon put an end to our self-guided tour.

There were plaques with the phone number of the coastguard in case you’ve lost track of the time and didn’t make it across before the rising tide made it impossible to cross. Not that they were planning to do anything about it.

By evening the lot was nearly empty and we had a quiet, peaceful and very dark night.

The next day dawned sunny but windy so that makes two sunny days in a row, most unusual. Planned was a hike through the geo riddled coast,

past a small fishing village where they hauled their boats up the cliffs, nesting them in depressions.

We hiked all the way out to the famous whale bone.

And that dear Escapees is a full lid.

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Barney Rubble meets Frank Lloyd Wright

We are drawn to parkups on a cliff overlooking a fine sea view. Preferably free. Marce sussed one out near some ruins that wasn’t too far away and had no problem with overnight parking. I slipped Escape Velocity into first gear and we were off even though both parkups in Kirkwall sported good views and are an easy walk into a charming village shopping district.

We were met with the usual single lane stop-and-go madness that we’ve become so accustomed to. Pulling into the gravel parking lot we quickly realized that no serious attempt had been made to level the place so we immediately commenced doing the Marce shuffle. What is the Marce Shuffle you ask? First practiced while dropping EV’s anchor in any harbor only to be assured that 25’ over to the right would be much better. Repeat several times until tempers fray. Usually mine.

Repeatedly leveling a three and a half ton camper van with two little plastic ramps is as crude a way to adjust the attitude of your home as you’ll ever find. Turns out we’re pretty good at it but the real trick is to read the lay of land, or parking lot, aye and there’s the rub. Much discussion ensues. Twentyfive feet over there would’ve been perfect, can’t you see how it levels off over there?

The view is beautiful but the ruins are hidden behind a wall and they want to be payed to be seen.

And while embarrassingly, rule #2 definitely applies, we had seen some magnificent sites recently and from the looks of the ruins beyond the wall it seemed well, just your average orderly pile of stones.

The following morning during breakfast Marce looked up and said, “Hey, aren’t we members in good standing of that Historic Scotland thing?” Step right up the ticket lady said, “No payment required for you.”

Let this be a lesson for all you thrillseekers. Rule #2 is insidious, and it’s so easy to fall prey. Turns out the Iron Age village of Broch of Gurness is very interesting, quite well preserved, and beautifully sited at the end of a grassy peninsula.

This is thought to be the first use of built in furniture and dressers with shelves, kind of like Barney Rubble meets Frank Lloyd Wright.

You’d have to call this a short drop

As it turns out the Gurness Village was a fascinating ruin and was similar to several brochs on either side of the Eynhallow sound. It’s certainly more domestic than defensive.

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Those real go-getters

Yours Truly has been known to reconnoiter in order to find one’s bearing’s before heading out on a expedition but there will be no lollygagging this morning, not even a leisurely cup of coffee. We’re hunting Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s not far. It’s called the Ring of Brodgar and it’s what to do when in Orkney.

The Ring is roughly some five thousand years old, older than the great pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, and it’s one of the largest stone circles in Great Britain. Before crossing a short causeway to the Ring you’re confronted with a massive standing stone called the Watchstone, just…well, standing there watching, stoically.

Back in Escape Velocity we quickly found the proper car park and started the hike up a gentle slope to the stones. Ok, let’s agree to call it the Ring.

The stones get larger and larger as you walk up and not quite as regular as you might expect.

Staff remarks that it doesn’t line up with anything at the solstice or equinox or any other time of year for that matter. Turns out the Ring and grounds were used as a tank practice course during World War II and that may account for some wonky alinement.

Hard to imagine

It’s thought that some 60 standing stones were originally erected but today there are only 36, and of those 21 are still standing. Thirteen were re-erected in 1906.

The stones are buried surprisingly shallow with little more than 18cm under ground.

Four large mounds at 90 degrees to each other surround the ring.

Apparently not having had enough, we shuffled a mile down the road to the Stones of Stenness, four massively tall standing stones, even older than the Ring of Brodgar. Can we even say it’s a ring or circle with only four standing stones? Let’s call them the Stenness Group.

Once again no one has any idea of why, or how, or what was the purpose of this ring of standing stones, leaving us clouded in befuddled mystery. No human remains or evidence of human activity, have ever been found inside the rings.

So in conclusion I’d like to suggest for the future that we humans always, without fail, LEAVE INSTRUCTIONS.

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